Dec. 21, 2004
Stop the presses! Paperless newspapers, immersive audio will rock the news industry. Soon.

Newspaper journalism hasn't changed much since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press about 1450, but it doesn't take a seer to know that's about to change. Chrysostomos (Max) Nikias, professor and director of the University of Southern California's Integrated Media Systems Center, has a National Science Foundation grant to study advanced technologies that relate to the creation, access, dissemination, and interactive use of information. Nikias believes that in less than five years paper will be a commodity in serious decline. He envisions that people will be able to customize the information they hear and see using a personal agent -- a pocket-sized, wireless computer with a built-in TV-radio-telephone-fax. Nikias plans to use his personal agent not only at home, but also on his long, Southern California commute to work. "I'll tell the device that I want 45 minutes' worth of information," he says. "Three minutes will be a report on local traffic. Then I want to hear about the weather in Paris because I'm planning to go there. Then I'll have a 15-minute wrap-up of the local and national report and 10 minutes of sports. Then I would like to spend the rest of the trip listening to music -- probably Handel." One call to a digital database and all of this information will be downloaded to Nikias' personal agent. At Columbia University in New York City, John Pavlik, professor of journalism and director of the Center for New Media, is receiving $200,000 a year from the Office of Naval Research and the National Tele-Immersion Initiative to develop a mobile journalist workstation that will feed an intelligent agent similar to what Nikias predicts. The prototype Pavlik is working with is about the size of a backpack and includes a connection to the Internet, a 360-degree camera and a global positioning satellite hookup that can pinpoint locations on the Columbia campus to within an inch. The future of newsgathering, Pavlik believes, will be a much more versatile, handheld version of the device that will feed information directly to the lens of the journalist's own eye. It will be controlled by an editor in the newsroom rather like the computer-generated head in the futuristic 1980s' series "Max Headroom." Pavlik thinks this device will allow the journalist to use words, audio, graphics, and animation. Gone will be the distinction between TV, radio and newspapers; the audience will hear the news, watch the news, click on links to read more about the news, and otherwise be completely interactively involved. The next step is virtual reality. Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president for technology and programs at the Freedom Forum in Rosslyn, Va., who has been writing a book about online journalism, is particularly fascinated with the potential of immersive audio. He points out that realistic visuals can be created easily. But audio is much more difficult to fake and will be the foundation upon which credibility is based. Powell, who previously was the vice president of news programming at National Public Radio, had an opportunity in the course of his research to observe some experiments with covering football by positioning three-dimensional sound-gathering devices on the field next to the quarterback. Powell says people who heard the grunts and groans and body slams were overwhelmed. "When they put the listener right next to John Elway in the middle of the play, they discovered that there was psychological disorientation. This was just a game, but it was way too intense for some people," Powell says. Powell wonders what the impact will be on future wars when the news media is able to position devices similarly that will broadcast the most intimate sounds of battle right into people's personal agents. How will people react to hearing audio of the sounds of death that are 100 times truer than stereo surround sound can deliver now?
Jennie L. Phipps writes about the newspaper industry for Bridge News. She is a former newspaper editor and author of an upcoming book on Internet research. She can be reached at [email protected].

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